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Leading with Compassion and Empathy

When you picture someone who is an outstanding leader, you probably see a few surface-level qualities. They are someone who is always on top of their work and delegates in a way that drives ownership and accountability. They are someone who is curious and consistently proposes new and innovative ideas. They communicate effectively and often. 

But what about someone compassionate and empathetic? Daniel Goleman believes “The fundamental task of leaders is to prime good feelings in those they lead. That occurs when a leader creates resonance – a reservoir of positivity that frees the best in people. At its root, then, the primal job of leadership is emotional.”

Leaders often have all of the great qualities above, but they don’t display compassion and empathy. What exactly is empathy? Empathy is defined as the ability to put yourself into the mental shoes of another person to understand his or her emotional feelings. Having (and displaying) empathy is a valuable skill. In a 2016 study by the Center for Creative Leadership, they found that empathy is positively related to job experience. In a Businessolver 2017 study, they found that 77 percent of employees surveyed would be willing to work longer hours for an empathetic employer, and 60 percent would even take a lower salary to work with an empathetic employer. Summed up: More empathy, better performance. You see, humans have been neurobiologically designed to connect with each other through empathy.

Now, more than ever, employees need compassionate, engaged, and empathetic managers. It is not a stretch to say that the pandemic has impacted every single employee. Whether they’ve had to face the challenges of sick family members or sickness themselves, lost their sense of stability, found their mental and physical health in decline, or for parents, found themselves suddenly becoming teachers. For employees to perform their best during these challenges, they need the reassurance of an empathetic and engaged leader. 

While empathy and compassion are often thought of as something people are born with, you can learn it. There are a few things that often stop people from being as empathetic as they could be—non active listening, feeling uncomfortable with emotion, or perhaps just being more focused on a business task at hand and less on the people who will actually complete the task. If you wonder how you can become a more empathetic and compassionate leader, check out the tips below. 

Listen.

An old swim coach used to ban us from raising our hands until he was done explaining a practice. He always said, “When your hand goes up, your ears turn off.” Obviously, your ears don’t actually turn off, but he had a point. When talking to your employees, make sure that you listen, in full, to what they are saying. Don’t interrupt them and avoid judging them. Deeply listen to them by paying attention, focusing more on the individual then themselves, and not only getting bits and pieces of the conversation but also getting a sense of who the person is and what they are feeling. Additionally, pay attention to body language and facial expressions—if someone is slumping their shoulders and can’t even force a smile, that can be a sign that they are experiencing an unpleasant emotion. To deeply listen, set aside time to be available for face-to-face meetings (this includes virtual meeting platforms) or just waiting to read individual emails from employees until you are in the right headspace to really hear out and think about what they are saying. Remember—there is a difference between hearing and listening. Don’t just hear, listen. 

See Everyone as Individuals.

While you may have started your morning off with a run and a coffee, your co-worker’s day may have started with oversleeping and a kid missing the school bus. While you may be someone who makes decisions quickly and without much hesitation, your co-worker may have to sit on a problem for a little longer to come to a decision they feel comfortable with. You may have two sales employees who perform about the same but think entirely differently and respond to constructive criticism and challenges differently. Being empathetic literally means understanding the feelings of someone else, so remember that personal feelings require different responses. 

Realize That Not Everyone Thinks and Acts Like You 

It’s no secret that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. And being a manager, you are probably someone who is relatively organized and on top of things. However, not all of your team members will be like that, and that’s not a bad thing. For example, take Steven from engineering. As a manager, you may be frustrated with Steven, who is low in agreeableness (part of the Big 5). Still, in reality, Steven wants more time to think through things–and that time he had to think, and allowing him to express his opinion, could cause you to make a different decision than the one you originally intended-for better. 

Create An Environment Where People Feel Comfortable 

I’m not saying that you need to start hosting therapy in your office (please don’t), but a little bit of compassion goes a long way. Let your employees know, especially during this time, that your door is open for feedback and conversation. This may give an employee, who’s struggling to meet a particular deadline because of XYZ roadblocks, the courage to go to you and say, “Hey, I’m having a tough time, and here’s why.” When responding, avoid phrases like “I would have” and “You should have” or “That’s just the way it is”—none of those would make a person feel seen or heard.  Listening and being empathetic towards those employee’s problems can help you solve the issue and help them feel more confident in their work and comfortable in their role. 

Be Kind to Yourself. 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly—you cannot be an empathetic leader if you don’t practice kindness with yourself. When you make a mistake, recognize it but let it go. Practice self-care and work-life balance. Be selfish to be selfless. 

Remember—we are not in the same boat. We are all in the same storm but on different boats. Each one of your employees is facing different challenges, big and small. In a year where basically everything that can go wrong has, a little empathy can go a long way.

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